What will catch the eye of those ringside at sales? The world-famous Kelso Ram Sales have attracted record entries this year. So what will the buyers be looking for at the two-day Border Union Show when it opens on Friday? IAIN LAING asks the experts.
WHEN hundreds of farmers descend on Kelso this week to get the best prizes for their animals in the ram sales, there will doubtless be much debate on the merits of the variety of breeds and tups.
Simon Bainbridge, who runs Northumberland's Monitor Farm at Donkin Rigg, has a good overview of the market and is keen to outline what he will be looking for when he selects his tups for the autumn.
A key factor for his purchases will be the estimated breeding value (EBV) of the sheep he buys. This provides an invaluable insight into the genetic potential that a ram can bring to your flock. Genetic gain makes great commercial sense. If EBVs are used wisely, production levels can be moved up a gear or two.
"This is the time when you create your potential to make maximum profit next year and for years to come. It's crucial that you get it right," says Mr Bainbridge. "Use EBVs. You can't always judge a book by its cover.
Although he has already bought tups from Willy and Carole Ingram at Logie Durno near Aberdeen, and from Hans Porksen, of Gallows Hill Farm, near Scots Gap, he needs more quality breeding stock which he knows he will find at Kelso.
Mr Bainbridge knows exactly what he is looking for, to run with his flock of 1,200 ewes, North of England Mules and Swaledales, with some Swaledale Cross Hexham Type Blackface.
These are Suffolks, chosen because they have higher growth rates and heavier lambs.
His second choice is Hampshire Downs: "These also have good growth rates, and the lambs are likely to have a good covering of wool on their backs, and be more vigorous at birth - this is certainly something that is important in the Cambo area."
He reviews his existing tups before he even sets out to buy replacements: he does ram MoTs to make sure his ram team are tip-top and able to do their bit for the business's bottom line.
His list of requirements, from a stock judging point of view, is simple.
"With being organic and lambing outside from April onwards, and trying to have a low input system, I want the sheep to be able to lamb outside on its own, with as little shepherding as possible.
"So the ewes need to be maternal and the tups to have been bred outside. I need a tup that will produce a small lamb that the ewe can easily lamb herself outside.
"The lamb has to get up and go, and the male must have a good growth rate and one which has more fat so that I can sell it early in the season. My aim is to have a good eight-week weight and a good muscle depth.
"I am looking for a breeder who is breeding his tups in the same way that I am lambing my sheep."
When looking for tups, he adds, he follows the same principles that anyone in business knows.
"I follow the six 'p's religiously - proper prior planning prevents poor performance. I will complete as much research beforehand as I can, then when I get to the sale I know the exact breeders I want to talk to.
"I shall quiz him or her for as much information as possible, as well as using my stockjudging skills."
John Macfarlane, of Alnorthumbria Vets and one of the Monitor Farm's project co-ordinators, adds to that list.
He says: "When it comes to breeding sales, health should be at the top. Remember that every sheep you buy could come with a free disease. Buy one, get one free offers are common when it comes to sheep diseases.
"If you don't consider the health status of replacements seriously, you can stall your productivity altogether, or worse still, put it in reverse.
Buy from breeders who can give you reassurances that their flocks are clean, he stresses.
In an ideal world, he says he would buy his breeding replacements from a breeder who: was MV, OEA and Scrapie accredited; had treated with Cydectin LA (for scab), Zolvix (for resistant worms), Fasinex (for fluke) and Micotil (for footrot and CODD) before the sale; had tested for CLA and BDV before the sale; and was willing to give assurances on Orf, Johne's, Jaagsiekte and Ringworm "That's not much to ask is it," admits Mr Macfarlane, but although the list sounds daunting, a potential bidder should try to get reassurances on as many of these as they can. They should also find out what the tups were fed before the sale and what mineral and vitamin supplements they were given.
The final advice comes when the tups arrive back at your farm. Mr Macfarlane adds: "Remember to quarantine them when you get them home and get them on to your system as quickly as possible.".
Mr Bainbridge, however has one point he is very keen to add: "Kelso Ram Sales are to sheep as Paris Fashion Week is to models, so I won't be buying purely on figures.
"So as you will have to wake up to your tups every day for the next few years, you also need to ensure that you purchase something that is good-looking and handsome!" The aim of the Monitor Farm project is to improve efficiency and productivity at Donkin Rigg and share successes (and failures) with farmers in Northumberland and beyond. It focuses on four main areas: soil structure/fertility and grass/forage management; sheep production; cattle production; business efficiencies (environmentals, renewables, banking, etc). Regular open meetings at Donkin Rig, near Cambo, are held, where the farm's progress and development is examined and discussed.
Regular inputs from experts from all aspects of agriculture and the rural economy are a key feature of each meeting. Wherever possible, these focus on relevant features of the farming year.
EXPERT VIEW Simon Bainbridge, right, says this is the time of year to purchase wisely for maximum profit. Above, vet John Macfarlane has a welfare list he recommends farmers to follow. Below, rams awaiting their turn in the show ring at Kelso.